Obituaries

Della Reese, singer and actress who starred on ‘Touched by an Angel,’ dies at 86

Ms. Reese sang the theme song to “Touched by an Angel,’’ in which she played a stern but loving supervisor of angels.
ALAN SINGER/file
Ms. Reese sang the theme song to “Touched by an Angel,’’ in which she played a stern but loving supervisor of angels.

NEW YORK — Della Reese, the husky-voiced singer and actress who spent almost a decade playing a down-to-earth heavenly messenger on the CBS series “Touched by an Angel” and became an ordained minister in real life, died Sunday night at her home in California. She was 86.

A family representative announced the death in a statement released Monday. No cause of death or other details were given.

Ms. Reese had been under contract to Jubilee Records for three years when, in 1957, she had her first big hit record, the romantic ballad “And That Reminds Me.”

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Named the year’s most promising “girl singer” by Billboard, Variety, and Cash Box, she was soon making regular appearances on the leading television variety shows of the day. Her biggest hit was “Don’t You Know” — adapted from “Musetta’s Waltz,” an aria from “La Bohème” — which reached No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart in 1959.

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But she became best known as an actress, particularly in the sentimental drama series “Touched by an Angel,” which had its premiere in 1994 and evolved into one of prime time’s top-rated shows. It placed in the Nielsen Top 10 from 1996-2000, with an average of more than 20 million weekly viewers at one point.

In the show, Ms. Reese, by then in her 60s, was cast as Tess, a stern but loving supervisor of angels who guided a softhearted and less experienced angel, Monica (Roma Downey), in helping humans at crossroads in their lives. The series told reassuring stories of forgiveness and second chances with mild irreverence. (“You get your little angel butt back to the city,” Tess told Monica in one episode.)

Ms. Reese contended that no career switch was involved. “Every time I sang the blues, I wasn’t blue,” she said in a 2008 interview for the Archive of American Television, alluding to her emotional connections and delivery as a vocalist. “I was already acting.”

Ms. Reese’s religious faith was a major influence in her career. In 1996 she told The Chicago Tribune that she had consulted with God about whether to sign on for “Angel.” “As clearly as I hear you,” she said, “I heard him say: ‘You can do this. I want you to do this, and you can retire in 10 years.’”

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The series lasted nine years, and she continued to act for another decade after that.

The only notable complication during the show’s run was a highly publicized salary dispute during the 1997-98 season. Ms. Reese went public with her displeasure at being offered a 12.5 percent pay increase for the new season, while Downey received a 100 percent raise.

The matter was settled the next summer with a three-year agreement that eventually increased Ms. Reese’s salary from $40,000 to $100,000 per episode (which was still less than what Downey was earning). Part of CBS’ argument against the raise was that the network had made scheduling concessions to allow Ms. Reese to fly from the set in Utah to California every weekend for church services.

In the 1980s, Ms. Reese had been ordained as a minister by the Universal Foundation for Better Living and founded the Understanding Principles for Better Living Church, a nondenominational Christian ministry. She delivered Sunday sermons there for many years.

Delloreese Patricia Early was born on July 6, 1931, in Detroit. Her mother, the former Nellie Mitchelle, was a domestic worker and her father, Richard, a steelworker, but there were early signs that their daughter might occupy a completely different world.

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When Delloreese was 13, Mahalia Jackson heard her sing at a Baptist church and invited the girl to join her gospel-choir tour. “I was arrogant enough to think I was helping out this old lady,” Ms. Reese recalled in a 1998 interview with The New York Times.

Ms. Reese made her television acting debut as a nightclub owner on the police series “The Mod Squad” in 1968. She went on to appear in scores of television movies and series, including the 1970s sitcom “Chico and the Man,” in which she had a recurring role, and the 1991-92 series “The Royal Family,” which ended shortly after the death of her costar Redd Foxx.

Feature films were not a major part of her career — she appeared in fewer than a dozen — but she considered her role as a 1920s madam in Eddie Murphy’s “Harlem Nights” (1989) pivotal because it proved she could play a character different from the ones she had in the past. She told The Ottawa Citizen in 1997, “For a long time, I was the woman who owned the club where the star came in after he broke up with his girlfriend.”

After “Touched by an Angel,” Ms. Reese continued to act occasionally in movies and on TV. Her last roles were in two holiday-themed 2013 television movies, “Dear Secret Santa” and “Miracle at Gate 213” (NBC), and two episodes of the Hallmark Channel series “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (2014).

Ms. Reese married Vermont Taliaferro, a Michigan factory worker, in 1951. They were divorced in 1958. Her second husband, from 1959 until their divorce in 1961, was Leroy Gray, an accountant. A brief 1961 marriage to Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington’s son, was annulled. In 1983 she married Franklin Lett, a concert producer. A daughter, Delloreese Daniels Owens, died in 2002.

Ms. Reese saw no conflict between her religious beliefs and the enjoyment of stardom’s perquisites. A 2003 Los Angeles Times article quoted one of her sermons: “I like to sit on soft things and sleep late,” she told her congregation, adding playfully, “I like 45 $100 bills in my pocketbook. It kind of makes me feel like a real woman.”